Columbus, Ohio, is known as both “Cowtown” and “The Biggest Small Town in America,” nicknames that begin to shed light on the destination’s Midwest charm mixed with big city amenities. Relative to other urban centers, the streets are safe and the people are friendly, yet you’ll find restaurants, galleries, shops and other attractions that have Columbus competing with cities two and three times its size.
Contrary to many other cities across the nation, the population of Columbus has been growing steadily. This influx of new residents has led to many new business openings in the city, and kept healthy competition amongst both old and new proprietors. Here, the average price for a beer at a bar is a modest $3.50, and meals at reasonably priced restaurants will only set you back about $10 per person. The food scene is delicious, there are plenty of attractions to explore, and getting around is simple – whether you’re traveling by foot, bus, bike, taxi or even pedicab.
If you need more convincing, consider this: Columbus has been ranked a top shopping destination by Forbes, a top arts destination by American Style, a top city for biking by Bicycling Magazine, and the city’s Science Center, COSI, was named the number one in the country for families by Parents Magazine. On top of that, National Geographic recently named the city one of the top 10 best fall trips. Spend a long weekend in this city, and you might find yourself wanting to come back for more.
The Wayfaring Buckeye Hostel: Columbus is known for its mega-sized university, Ohio State, and this newly established house-turned-hostel is the place to be if you want to stay in the heart of it all. The whole place is ready to party: on the front porch you’ll find a beer pong table, the common area is outfitted with a projector screen for movies and a foosball table, and the back patio frequently hosts music performances. Despite the frat house atmosphere, managers keep the hostel clean, and visitors can also take advantage of free Wi-Fi, bicycle rental, laundry facilities and more. From $25.
WayfaringBuckeye.com 2407 Indiana Ave.; 614-754-0945.
The Lofts: At this recently renovated boutique hotel in Columbus’ Arena District, old meets new: the hotel’s exterior is set in a historic former warehouse, yet inside you’ll find clean, contemporary designed rooms with exposed brick walls. Other amenities include an indoor swimming pool and an on-site restaurant. Be sure to check into package deals, as the hotel has been running a special where they throw in a third night stay for free, bringing the overall price tag way, way down. From $144 (before discount).
55Lofts.com 55 East Nationwide Blvd.; 614-461-2663
German Village Guesthouse: If you’re looking for something a little quieter, the cozy German Village Guesthouse is not only ranked as the top bed-and-breakfast in Columbus on TripAdvisor, but was also voted the “Best Hotel/B&B in Columbus” in the 2012 reader poll by 614 Magazine. Some of the rooms offer great views of the Columbus skyline, and on the ground you can explore the cobblestone streets and lush gardens of historic German Village, a neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Districts. From $195.
GVGuesthouse.com 748 Jaeger St.; 614-437-9712
Eat and Drink
Grass Skirt Tiki Room: The newest oasis in Columbus’ downtown area is this tiki-themed bar, the brainchild of the city’s ragtag group of unorthodox restaurateurs, the Columbus Food League. Here you can chow down on a Loco Moco (traditional Hawaiian dish of burger patties over rice smothered in gravy and a sunny side-up egg) while throwing back a mai tai, or you could head to one of the group’s other restaurants: the Surly Girl Saloon, Betty’s Fine Food and Spirits, or Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails, where you’ll also get a dose of Ohio history.
GrassSkirtTiki.com 105 N Grant Ave.; 614-429-3650
Bodega: Every Monday night hipsters flock to Bodega, when the restaurant offers $1 panini-style grilled cheese sandwiches. What money you save on dinner you can contribute to trying one of the restaurants 50+ craft beers on tap – which, by the way, are also half off from 4 to 8 p.m. Don’t forget to try the local suds, including Columbus Brewing Company, Buckeye Lake Brewery, Elevator Brewing Company, Hoff Hearted Brewing and more. The patio makes for a great spot to people watch, while the interior has an artsy, sophisticated vibe. ColumbusBodega.com 1044 N. High St.; 614-299-9399
Food Trucks: These days, it seems as though you can’t talk about cheap eats without mentioning meals on wheels. Columbus is no exception to the food truck craze, with nearly 100 roving restaurants circulating the city. Options range from creole to crepes, Indonesian to Italian, pierogies to pulled pork, or Jamaican to Korean, but the trend that has really taken off are taco trucks. More than 40 of these trucks cater to Columbus’ fastest growing population – Latinos – as well as anyone else who wants a quick, tasty bite.
North Market: In the late 1800s there were four public markets in Columbus, each with a name paying homage to its cardinal direction. Today, only one remains: North Market. The current 36 merchants inside the building include delis, bakeries, pastry shops, ethnic restaurants, specialty goods sellers, produce stands and more. Even if you only pop in for a taste, don’t miss Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. This creamery takes the label “artisan” seriously, promising “[e]very single thing we put in our ice cream is legit.” Just last year, head honcho Jeni Britton Bauer won a James Beard Foundation Book Award for her cookbook, “Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams At Home” – a great takeaway if you’re looking to bring a piece of Columbus back home.
Experience Cafe Culture: It would be far-fetched to say Columbus is the next Paris, but this city has become obsessed with cafe culture recently. Artisan roasters and craft coffeemakers are popping up all over the city, promising a cafe on nearly every street corner – that isn’t Starbucks. Cafe Brioso and Staufs Coffee roast all their coffees in house, while Back Room Coffee Roasters operates out of a local bike repair shop and Thunderkiss roasts single-origin coffees in less than five pound batches. There are also mainstays such as Cup o’ Joe and Crimson Cup.
Swim with Stingrays: You no longer have to go to a place like Belize’s “Shark Ray Alley” to swim with stingrays. Last year, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium opened a new attraction, Stingray Bay, inside an 18,000-gallon saltwater pool that allows you to get up close and personal with the creatures. Touching the stingrays in Stingray Bay is perfectly safe, and it only costs an extra $3. Even better, you’ll be inside a top-rated zoo that was developed with great help from famed zookeeper Jack Hanna and is currently home to more than 9,000 animals. If that’s not enough, the zoo is adjacent to the Zoombezi Bay Waterpark. A day pass to both attractions is less than $30, and you’ll also save on parking!
Columbus is easily walkable, with much of the city centered around the main north/south drag: High Street. Along this road you’ll find some of the city’s best bars, restaurants, art galleries and specialty shops. Several neighborhoods are worth a walk-through, particularly the Short North, the arts and entertainment district. If you happen to visit during the first Saturday of each month, the Short North hosts a free gala on fine art and food starting at 4 p.m., when all the galleries along High Street open their doors to unveil new exhibitions – and many offer small bites and samples of wine.
However, if you need to get from one end of High Street to the other faster than your legs will take you, the #2 bus operated by Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) can get you anywhere along this main artery for $2 per trip or $4.50 for a day pass. Since the city is flat, renting a bike is also a great option, or if preferred you can have someone else do the legwork by taking a ride in one of the many pedicabs that navigate the city.
Buses also service Port Columbus International Airport, which is six miles from Columbus. Use the trip planner on the COTA website to find the next bus, or just pop the address into Google maps to get bus directions to your starting (or ending) location. The next best option is a shuttle bus, of which there are many options to and from the airport.
If you’re looking for a night out on the town without hurting your wallet, check out the Columbus-based website 20 Dollar Dates. There you’ll find plenty for two people to do, and you’re guaranteed to never spend more than a Jackson. Date ideas range from happy hour specials to nearby hikes to holiday-themed activities.
[Photo credits: Flickr user Jack Zalium (top image) and Flickr user codydean]